Bataille, Georges (1897–1962)

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Georges Bataille is a pivotal thinker in the history of twentieth-century thought, in a literal sense. His work serves as a pivot between any number of significant early twentieth-century trends, and later movements such as postmodernism and deconstruction.

The extremely eclectic Bataille was first, and perhaps most deeply, influenced by the Marquis de Sade. This scandalous thinker had an enormous impact on avant-garde French thought of the post-World War I period, most notably among the surrealists and their followers. Bataille, loosely associated with and against the surrealists, appropriated from Sade the notion of a violent, merciless natural order, and of man as a mimic of the destructive (and hence reconstructive) power of nature through the boundless expression of destructive sexual impulses. Bataille, like Sade, while a proclaimed atheist, nevertheless linked man's necessary violence to the blaspheming of God; in this way God, though denied, is in a strange way revived through the necessity of his transgression. (See early texts by Bataille, such as "The Solar Anus" [1927], and "The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade [An Open Letter to My Current Comrades]" in Visions of Excess [1985]).

Bataille went on in the early 1930s to link Sade with the contemporary French anthropological theories of Marcel Mauss and Emile Durkheim. Both of these early twentieth-century thinkers hoped to find in primitive thought the kind of energy (social effervescence) whose absence led to the anomie, the rootlessness and pointlessness, of modern life. For Durkheim this energy was to be found in mana, the enthusiasm of crowds coming together; for Mauss, it was found in the rituals of gift-giving and ritualized destructions (such as the potlatch festivals of Northwest American Indians) of traditional societies. Both thinkers held that the basis for this social ritual was fundamentally rational: the energy of crowds and collective festivals was ultimately based on the peaceful tendency of people to recognize themselves as human. Mauss held that gift-giving, implemented as a major feature of modern economies, could counter the alienating tendencies of self-centered bourgeois economies. Bataille took this model and radicalized it to the extent that he held that gift-giving, crowds, and ritual destruction were energizing to the extent that they were irrational: A person's fundamental tendency was to expend (dépenser ), and this urge, while making possible the full social experience, nevertheless put in question the stability and comfort of human life, not to mention the sacred integrity of the human person (so beloved by Durkheim). Expenditure, in this sense, was the affirmation of life to the point of the risk of death, and the Sadean affirmation of a "general economy" based not on saving and reinvestment, but on the extravagant squandering of wealth. (See "The Notion of Expenditure" [1932] in Visions of Excess, and The Accursed Share [1949]).

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Bataille was at the vanguard of the French reception of Friedrich Nietzsche and G. W. F. Hegel. From Nietzsche, Bataille took the assertion of the death of God as a radical embrace of death, an apocalyptic, erotic moment. Nietzsche for Bataille is a lighthearted leap into the moment when God affirms his own nonexistence: the point at which the sacred is an affirmation not of conservation and reuse (the eternity of divinity), but the night of sacrificial oblivion. Out of this "left-hand" sacred, Bataille evolves a practice of mystical meditation based not on a communion with an ever-present God, but on the ecstatic horror of his definitive absence. For Bataille, this mystical practice is inseparable from the impossible task of writing it: this results in such fragmentary works as Inner Experience (1943), Guilty (1944) and On Nietzsche (1945).

Bataille's reading of Hegel is similarly unusual and arguably mistaken: following and rewriting Alexandre Kojève's Hegel, Bataille's version posits the end of history as a moment in which absolute knowledge turns and tries to incorporate the radical negativity on which it depends (through exclusion) in order to be complete. Rational, recoverable negativity can only be determined as recoverable in opposition to a more fundamental negativity that refuses all use, all constructive effort, all knowledge. Yet to be truly posthistorical, this negativity must finally be (impossibly) appropriated. To be Hegel all the way, one must recognize a negativity that by definition is unrecognizable: what Bataille called "not-knowing." Without this gesture one has not fully attained the "end of History"; with it, one is condemned to a circular agitation in which one's knowledge is incessantly lost in the oblivion of not-knowing. Negativity now, at the end, is a toxic form of dépense ; at the same time, Hegel is nevertheless maintained to the extent that his philosophy is followed through, mimed, and not so much negated as always-again affirmed in its loss, its madness (Bataille believed Hegel became mad at the moment he fully realized the consequences of the "end of History"). On this topic, see the "Hegel" section of Inner Experience (1943), and Bataille's short novel Madame Edwarda (1941).

Finally, in Bataille's writings on eroticism, he comes to see the expenditure of human limits in erotic contact; this "communication," as he called it, entails a community (of lovers) through the risk of the limits of the self. In this way Bataille revised the radical sexualized selfishness put forward by Sade: for Bataille "communication" is above all an act of generosity, if not a moral act. (See Erotism, 1957).

Bataille's eclectic rewriting of these major strands of French thoughtmoving in genres as diverse as sociological essays, mystical meditations, pornographic novels, and economic treatiseshas had an enormous influence on French thought of the post-existentialist period. Two examples: Derrida's method of deconstruction, which involves not the refutation of a given work but rather the close following of that work and its steady disarticulation, all the while recognizing that the work of metaphysics cannot be escaped, but only endlessly repeated and deconstructed, owes much to the Bataillean reading of Hegelindeed Derrida's reading of Bataille's Hegel may be seen as the model of the deconstructive project. Similarly, Foucault's affirmation of a "counter-discourse" in which a full, coherent discourse is destabilized by the discourse it must violently expel in order to constitute itself, clearly owes much to Bataille. Bataille, however, surpasses his recent avatars in his insistence on a political implementation of dépense ; whereas Derrida, for example, is happy to rewrite Bataille's "general economy" as a "general writing"thereby shifting the debate to an analysis of largely textual questionsBataille insists on the need to rethink the future of society in ways that foresee a future economy based not on the profit motive but on the implementation of a global and orgiastic "spending without return."

See also Deconstruction; Derrida, Jacques; Durkheim, Émile; Foucault, Michel; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Postmodernism; Violence.


works by bataille

Erotism. Translated by Mary Dalwood. New York: Marion Boyars, 1987.

Guilty. Translated by Bruce Boone. Introduction by Denis Hollier. Venice, CA: Lapis Press, 1988.

Inner Experience. Translated and introduced by Leslie Ann Boldt. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988.

Madame Edwarda. Paris: Pauvert, 1966.

On Nietzsche. Translated by Bruce Boone. Introduction by Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Paragon House, 1994.

The Accursed Share. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 19271939, edited by Allan Stoekl. Translated by Allan Stoekl, with Carl Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

works about bataille

Derrida, Jacques. "From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve." In Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass, 251277. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. "A Preface to Transgression." In Language, Countermemory, Practice, edited by Donald F. Bouchard. Translated by Sherry Simon, 2952. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Discourse. Translated by Ian McLeod. In Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, edited by Robert Young, 4878. Boston: Routledge, 1981.

Gemerchak, Christopher M. The Sunday of the Negative: Reading Bataille, Reading Hegel. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003.

Hegarty, Paul. Georges Bataille: Core Cultural Theorist. London: SAGE, 2000.

Allan Stoekl (2005)